John Kearns: The Varnishing Days | Review of the Edinburgh Comedy Award-winner's latest show
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John Kearns: The Varnishing Days

Review of the Edinburgh Comedy Award-winner's latest show

The thing about appearing on Taskmaster, John Kearns notes, is that ‘ticket sales go up… but the laughs, they go down.’ Sure, people drawn to his tour after seeing his exploits on Channel 4 might not expect his very particular brand of aggressive whimsy, but most will surely be won over by his sometimes desperate but always beguiling persona. 

On the face of it, his act is ridiculous – not least because he still insists on donning the monk’s tonsure wig and fake teeth that he has used as a crutch since the start of his decade-long career. He makes a show of putting them on to the strains of You’ve Got To Have A Gimmick from the musical Gypsy. The props, he says, set him out as an old-fashioned ‘turn’ – the sort of daft act even his grandmother would recognise as a comedy artifice. 

Of course, most comedians are essentially ridiculous – but few choose to show it, preferring to wrap up their work in the guise of an everyman or woman telling it like it is. Yet Kearns offers more truths and at least as many keen, universal observations in his superficially off-the-wall show as any other stand-up, all wrapped up in philosophical musings about man’s need to create art.

What the hell is he doing with his life is a recurring theme, especially now he is a father. He seems to yearn for a noble obscurity but needs to earn a crust. Besides, he’s too good a comedian to be sidelined. 

But the mainstream is not for him, despite as appearance on Sunday Brunch highlighted so definitively. In The Varnishing Days, he brilliantly punctures the artificially of such programmes as he becomes incredulous and angry in equal measure at a One Show item about a superannuated tortoise. On the one hand, he has a Rodney Dangerfield-like gripe of getting no respect; on the other he slightly fears – or at least distrusts – success.

That said, he’s not such an oddball as his stage get-up might suggest. His hopes and fears are universal, and he pats himself on the back when delivering slices of relatable observational comedy about bin bags or tea towels. But even here, it comes with the delightful, poetic flourish that defines all his work.

Kearns evokes Vincent Van Gogh as the epitome of the artist doing his own thing, despite rather than because of public appetite, impoverished in his time but posthumously universally hailed as a genius. There’s a noble romance to that. Similarly, in his reveries, he imagines himself a circus trapeze artist, looking down at the risible clowns.

With the pathos of a modern-day Tony Hancock, the universe seems to conspire against him achieving his highfalutin aims, including his errant one-year-old son bringing his dreams crashing down. Attempts at improving himself, such as taking an online Marco Pierre White cooking masterclass, are doomed to ignominy, which he can then rant and rave about on stage.

The Varnishing Days – Kearns's fifth solo show – is perfectly structured with overlapping themes and surprising callbacks. Yet for all the finely-scripted, exasperated cries of incredulity, he can be playful too, He riffs a brilliant gag about an aftershave brand – and is mischievously daring about when the news gives one routine a bad-taste overtone he could never see coming nor would ever seek.

Ultimately, this is about doing your best on your own terms. It’s all rather wonderful, the insights of this optimistic philosopher in the cheap synthetic wig; this valiant campaigner for ambition to escape a flawed, mediocre world. 

John Kearns: The Varnishing Days is at the Soho Theatre, London, until Saturday, then on tour from September to November following a 12-night run at the Edinburgh Fringe. John Kearns tour dates.

Review date: 22 Jun 2023
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Soho Theatre

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